Functions of a Communal Forest Garden

Functions of a Church Forest Garden

It can be said that in our modern context, most churches with the possibility of creating a forest garden right outside their place of worship, could benefit greatly from doing so, as some already have.  This is true on several practical levels~ and we may even emerge, with increasing clarity the longer time marches forward, a moral imperative to do so.

Throughout Christianity’s development through historical time, many things have changed.  One of the last, and accordingly most long-lasting, traditions to be uprooted from a society of continental drifters was the concept of a perennial ecology surrounding churches.  Medieval Churchs, for example, were often planted with long-term timber on estate grounds.  The tree would grow to be as big as the structural element it would replace by the time the element needed replacing- in many cases hundreds of years later.  Native places of worship were often in the thick of dense woods where materials used in worship were readily available to abundance. The function of a church forest garden is to essentially take a step back towards restoring a “Garden of Eden” setting for our worship.  Some faiths prefer to worship surrounded by barren desert- but some don’t. Thus, it is not a universally applicable strategy for bringing people together.  That said, most cultures existing within forested biomes particularly in northern country did exhibit woodsman-like agricultures expressed in the ritual observances of not only the family but also the church and greater society the family was a unit to.  The surviving, integrated churches of the future will have adopted this strategy somewhere along the timeline.

A church forest garden is an expression of a community’s will to life and harmony with nature, just like healthy soil produces healthy plants.  It is, quite literally, how a people communally choose to steward their small slice of creation.  It is a chance for everyone to bring their ideas, talents, and resources together to create something greater than they could accomplish in their individual households yet still identify with on a meaningful level alongside producing forest products.

On an ecological level, a church forest garden…

– purifies air

– cleans water entering the ground

– prevents erosion

– builds organic matter in soil

– breaks wind

– blocks bad views

– creates good views

– holds water in a landscape

– creates wildlife habitat

– produces seeds, nuts fruits, root divisions, & such NTFP (non timber forest products

– timber, if managed for it

– Is an actively regenerative and living, growing process.

If an unused landscape does not do these things but could at affordable installation expense, there is little reason to keep a fallow field, abandoned lot, & such, nearby with nothing growing in it- for purely passive benefits can be acquired at little expense.

To the degree that it is seasonally appropriate, a church forest garden is a space for-

-people to utilize in a wide variety of practical (edible, medicinal, craft) contexts

-children to play after the service, running around bushes as obstacles, hiding from each other, and such.

-parents to bring noisy children where the child’s brain chemistry can interact with the calming energies of fresh air filtered by trees, natural sounds, & such.

-gardening minded people to congregate and socialize after a service

A mature and developed church forest garden-

-expresses the will towards growth and life of a people

-diversifies the space available for parishioners to utilize

-creates a broader range of activities possible for socialization

-provides aesthetic boons throughout phases of the year (these flowers are in bloom)

-provides healthy, hyper-local food and medicine for parishioners

-reduces need to import food, spices, etc, to church functions

-provides possibility for reducing waste such as food scraps from such functions via nutrient recycling in the forest garden.

-provides a genetic seed bank of nursery plant materials for interested parishioners and guests to interact with

-Something for children to remember playing in as a kid. It functions as continuous but dynamic element into their lives.

-creates opportunity to develop special microclimate-influenced and culturally valuable crops that could be sold at bake sales, used creatively in ceremonies, & such

-Is a basic and elemental symbol of a people’s connection to their space with infinitely customizable opportunity and choice of difficulty in management.

A young forest garden undergoing establishment-

-has designed levels of maintenance requirements.

-usually has establishment costs, though not always.

-has budgeting for fencing, plant materials, tools, mulch, compost, and special features such as chairs, rocks, sculpture, etc.

-needs some degree of leadership initiative to oversee the work and coordinate volunteers, decide what needs to be worked on or harvested, and steer the evolution of the garden as time advances.

-includes conceptual establishment activities as surveying, mapping, designing, fundraising, and implementing.

-includes practical establishment activities as earthmoving, planting, watering, thinning, pruning, and mulching.  (These activities could easily be accomplished by people who would love to do it during after-church social sessions- the forest garden can be designed to be as big or small as the people would care to handle.)

If care is not given long term, the forest garden reverts to a semi-feral forest state that may not be as productive as a periodically managed site but still passively produce some if not many of the yields listed above.

The psychological benefits and social effects of a forest garden begin immediately upon implementation, and fruits, fuels, medicines can all be obtained within the time of a small fraction of a single human lifetime.  The full benefit of systems undergoing establishment today will not be known until generations from now.  In the long haul, they pay off for themselves many, many times over.  In this way, a forest garden is an embodied faith in the future of God’s covenant with man.

Once a system is fully established, the only management it needs is the harvesting of goods and very occasional cutback of overgrowth.  People managing the forest garden need no supervision and have a sense for all the many ways to harvest the fruits of a forest garden and need no supervision or incentive to work other than the pure delight, joy, and valuable products of it. There are yet forest gardens that date back to the time of Christ in the southern latitudes of the world for biomes roughly similar to the one he inhabited. There are still communities of people in Asia having full livelihoods managing the productive systems of their fathers going back many generations.

Indeed, many faiths from differing world religions these days are taking on community forest gardens as expressions of their faith.  By no means is a forest garden right for every church setting. It is true, however, that there are near infinity possibilities for what a forest garden could be and become, and every church on earth could have a completely unique expression of itself through this medium, just as the actual church, its local culture, and the manifestation of its community’s belief can be unique.  But if a church has land available to them, that they have neither thought of the potential of nor done anything with, what does that reveal about that faith’s beliefs?  Just as the churches of the past had such many faced, multi-advantageous, designed ecosystems outside their doors, so too will churches of a lasting and positive future.  This offers churches the opportunity to have very old, customized, living, productive adornment to their facilities which serves a beautiful and dynamic embodiment of faith.

Jason PE Smith, April 2018, BoundaryConditions.Online